Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Brexiters behave as if Britain was being forced to leave the EU

I have written several times on this blog about the failure of leading Brexiters to take responsibility for the consequences of Brexit, for example the inevitability of a hard border in Ireland given that Britain is leaving the single market and customs union.

There have been several more examples this week, starting with the announcement that the EMA will move to Amsterdam and the EBA to Paris although it was only in April that David Davis was saying that there was no reason why these agencies should leave London just because of Brexit, and that could somehow be achieved by negotiation. Yet the agencies are leaving because Britain is leaving the EU, they are not being ‘taken away’ from us.

Then again, there are finally signs that the government are going to go at least a reasonable distance towards agreeing to meet Britain’s financial obligations – but ‘only if the EU agrees to begin trade talks’. Yet it is the EU which has said doing so is one of the pre-conditions for starting trade talks, and these only arise because Britain is leaving the EU.

Or, another issue, when Michel Barnier re-affirmed that if Britain leaves the single market it means just that Brexiters were outraged and yet it is they (or at least the hard Brexiters) who insist that leaving the EU must mean leaving the single market. And his suggestion that the most that Britain could hope for on trade was a Canada-style deal ‘dashed Britain’s hopes’. Yet such a deal was held up by many leading Brexiters during the Referendum campaign as precisely what they wanted.

But I am beginning to think that there is more to this than Brexiters’ failure to accept (or perhaps even to understand) the consequences of their decision. Brexiters bemoan the failure of remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit but they themselves seem singularly lacking in any big, coherent, optimistic, strategic or even enjoyable vision of Brexit. Given that (as they constantly say) they won the vote and are now enacting their dream policy you might expect such a vision, and if it existed many of the current problems would fall away. They would happily be saying ‘sure, we will meet our pre-existing financial commitments, these are of little importance given the exciting new opportunities Brexit brings’. Or, on citizens’ rights, they would be saying ‘fine, it is a little unusual to have another court overseeing these rights, but we recognize this is an unusual situation and if you want this, it is not a big problem’. As for Barnier’s speech, the response would be no more than a raised eyebrow, as if to say ‘of course we are leaving the single market, we told you that, remember’.

In short, we would see a generous, consensus-building approach to making an agreement with the EU, rather than a transactional, fractious, suspicious ‘negotiation’ in which at each step Britain is dragged to agreeing things it at first says it will not agree, squandering time and goodwill. After all, if Brexit were as wonderful as they claim, why not be generous? Why not be magnanimous? We’re free, and heading for much better things! For that matter, the constant harrying of remainers for their lack of enthusiasm, their hang-dog resentment, not to mention their sabotage and treachery would all be irrelevant for Brexiters who were confident, even joyful, about the decision they had made.

Then there is the German election and its aftermath. For months, Brexiters have insisted that a strong Merkel government would assure a good deal for Britain; now they say with equal certainty that a weakened Merkel will be to our advantage. These things can’t both be true – and in fact neither are, the German stance on Brexit will be much the same whatever its government – but the point is that if Brexiters had a vision they believed in, they would not be bothered one way or another about the composition of the German government.

Equally, having won their great prize, why are Brexiters so impatient? They say that this is a historic moment, and one which will undo forty years or more of serfdom to the EU. Yet after just a few months of the exit process – some of which were lost to the General Election anyway – more and more of the Brexit ultras are calling for Britain simply to pull out of the talks immediately. Not only are they unwilling to devote the years that, realistically, such an historic task warrants, they are not even willing to expend months on it.

So instead of the generosity, confidence, patience and optimism that might be expected to accompany victory what we see amongst Brexiters is an oscillation between sour, crabby, resentful anger and bellicose, belligerent, defiant anger. That anger seems, if anything, to grow with each passing week: constantly paranoid, fearful of ‘betrayal’ and completely devoid of pleasure. I’ve written elsewhere about how May’s Florence speech was most remarkable for sounding like a case for staying in the EU rather than leaving it. Observing Brexiters’ behaviour now, the thing that strikes me most forcibly is that almost all the time they act and talk not as if Britain had chosen to leave the EU but exactly as if Britain was being expelled by the EU.

As a thought experiment, imagine that this were so. And then imagine how Britain would respond. If you do so, something very uncanny happens. We could expect in those circumstances such things as: trying to argue that, even so, agencies like EMA and EBA could stay in London; paying the minimum possible financial settlement; rejecting the EU’s preferred arrangements for citizens’ rights; hoping against hope that the German political situation would prove helpful; seeking multiple opt-ins to the single market, and frictionless trade despite being ejected from the customs union; insisting that the Irish border remain uncontrolled because of the Good Friday Agreement; and considerable anger and suspicion about the EU and anyone in the UK seen to be ‘siding’ with the EU. In short, almost everything that Brexiters say now, in the circumstance of having chosen to leave, makes much more sense as a response to being forced to leave.

Update (24/11/17): Just hours after I wrote this post a row erupted which perfectly illustrates the argument I made. It was announced that British cities would not be eligible for consideration as European City of Culture 2023. The reason is that to be eligible cities must be in a country which is an EU member, an EFTA or EEA member, or aspiring to become an EU member. By 2023 none of these criteria will be met by Britain. This led to a huge outpouring of anger from Brexiters, railing against the pettiness, spite and hostility of the EU. Thus precisely acting as if the EU was excluding Britain rather than Britain choosing – by virtue of leaving the EU and the single market – to exclude itself.
Whilst in itself one of the more minor effects of Brexit, the reaction to it is not just illustrative of the argument in this post but a foretaste of what will surely be the far greater anger that will accompany the far greater effects which are to come. The story is also interesting – and depressing – for seeing a re-run of many of the tired, discredited lines of the Referendum campaign. Thus some, such as John Glen MP, objected that ‘we are leaving the EU, not Europe’ as if that was anything other than a geographical truism. The point, of course, is that in leaving the EU and associated institutions we are leaving all of the agencies and arrangements of those institutions.
Even more depressing was a spokesperson for the Prime Minister objecting that this was unfair since Norway, whilst not being a member of the EU, had been eligible (the reason being, of course, that they Norway is in EFTA/EEA). This takes us right back to the repeated invocations of the ‘Norway model’ by Brexiters before the Referendum, a model which the PM has, since the Lancaster House speech, insisted is not acceptable as it would not satisfy ‘the will of the people’. It really seems as if, despite the trillions of words written and spoken about Brexit, we are just going round in circles.
And this episode also illustrates in a small way some of the big issues about Brexit. First, that the government had allowed cities to make bids against the advice of civil servants who had realised that there would be a problem about eligibility. Second, and most tragic of all, that the government – and Boris Johnson in particular – had wanted bids to made as “part of a plan for a dynamic, outward-looking and Global Britain” following Brexit.
So this is a microcosm of Brexit. In pursuit of its global future after Brexit the UK enters a competition which it is not eligible for because of Brexit, urged on by pro-Brexit politicians against the advice of those who actually know it is impossible. And when that impossibility becomes impossible to ignore, Brexiters denounce the EU for excluding them from that which they have decided to exclude themselves. I imagine that there is technical term in linguistics for when an irony becomes a metaphor, which would be useful to apply to this. More useful still, as Brexit unfolds, will be a term to describe a farce that becomes a tragedy.


Saturday, 18 November 2017

Why is there so little Bregret and what might change that?

Polling shows relatively little evidence of ‘Bregret’ (Brexit Regret). There has only been a small shift towards people thinking that in retrospect it was the wrong decision to vote to leave, and were there another in or out referendum today there is no real reason to think that the outcome would be different to what it was in 2016.

This might seem surprising in view of the mounting evidence of economic damage and the evident lack of progress in the exit negotiations, and whilst it is quite possible that opinions will change as that evidence continues to grow I suspect that they are unlikely do so to any great extent. That matters, because only sustained and significant polling evidence that a significant majority of people now want to remain will change the political dynamic of Brexit, and if that is going to have any effect there is not much time left for it to happen.

One reason explaining the lack of Bregret goes back to the Referendum itself, which showed that the political saw ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is not a reliable guide and, hence, the almost entirely transactional case for EU membership put by the Remain campaign failed to win enough support. Hence David Davis’ comment to German business leaders on Friday that it is a mistake to put politics ahead of prosperity was so widely mocked, since that is precisely what Brexit does.

However, that does not mean accepting what is now often said, that the vote to leave was about cultural identity rather than economics. For one thing, the NHS £350M claim, which certainly had some effect on the result, was, for all its well-documented flaws, an economic argument. More generally, apart from the fact motivations to vote leave were variegated (as were those of remain voters) and all single factor explanations are facile, culture and economics are not separate realms but interact in all sorts of ways. For example, during the campaign I heard some leave voters talk about issues of deindustrialisation and its malign effects on community. Their mistake, in my view, was to believe that EU membership was the cause of this and that leaving the EU would redress it – but my point here is rather that these voters made an explicit link between economics and culture.

So instead of thinking about the vote – and any propensity now for Bregret – in terms of economics versus culture I think it is better to think in terms of the gap between Brexit as a symbolic act and Brexit as a series of concrete legal, economic and political arrangements. In a post last May, I wrote about how there is the strange sense from those who argue most vociferously for Brexit that, somehow, Brexit won’t change anything. For example, I’ve seen Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to the EU or that it could mean restrictions on air travel within the EU. Or that security cooperation with EU countries would be diminished. Or that European fruit and vegetables might be less easily sourced. Or that British people would face restrictions on retiring in EU countries. Or, possibly the most ubiquitous (and for those on the receiving end, most hurtful and infuriating) since the referendum, leave voters saying to their friends and neighbours from EU countries: ‘oh, but we didn’t mean you when we said there were too many immigrants’.

I don’t think that these things are necessarily to do with the idea that Britain can ‘cherrypick’ some parts of the EU that they like. Rather, what underlies such sentiments is two related things. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So of course ‘nowadays’ planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and of course we can travel visa-free in Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights. In some ways, Brexiters, who despise technocrats and bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, also treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems. But they are not an act of nature – they are concrete legal arrangements from which, on Brexit, British citizens can be excluded. There is no ‘of course’ about it.

The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act. That, indeed, is the implication of the Brexit White Paper which affirms (para 2.1) that sovereignty was never lost by EU membership but that “it has not always felt like that”.

What this now means is well-illustrated by the Channel 4 News report this week about how Grimsby, where some 70% voted to leave, is now seeking special exemption from any new tariffs or barriers for its principal fish-based industries. There have been similar calls from leave voting areas like Cornwall and Wales for special protection from the loss of EU grants and subsidies. The Grimsby report was widely mocked by remainers for indicating stupidity or hypocrisy, but I think it is better understood as an expression of this disconnect between Brexit as a symbolic act and as something that entails non-symbolic consequences.

The same kind of disconnect can be seen across many aspects of the ongoing Brexit developments. In my previous post I mentioned the example of those Brexiters who are blaming the EU for suggesting that hard Brexit means a hard border in Ireland, rather than being an inevitable consequence of Britain’s choice to leave the single market and customs union. That argument is being heard more and more widely as the border issue rises in public consciousness – for example, it was made very vociferously by the Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley on the BBC’s Dateline London show today.

The underlying thought process seems to be – these are not the consequences that we wanted from the Brexit vote and ‘therefore’ they are either nothing to do with that vote (denial) or are being unnecessarily forced on us by the EU and/or obstructive remainers (blame). It is true that there are some pro-Brexit people who do neither of these things and who not only accept that Brexit brings certain adverse consequences but, even, think that this can be seen as positive in terms of restoring national resilience. I have heard some leave voters say something like this, and it seems to be the view of, for example, pro-Brexit blogger Pete North and, in a different way, one of the Leave campaign’s biggest donors, Peter Hargreaves, the latter arguing that the insecurity caused by Brexit will be fantastic.

This, explicitly in the case of Hargreaves, is the kind of ‘Dunkirk’ vision of Brexit but – whatever else one could say about it – it is not the platform that the Leave campaign fought on, and it certainly does not seem to be how most leave voters see things. The Grimsby voters, for example, appear not to be embracing their new-found insecurity but are seeking an exemption from it, just as those making the Janet Daley argument want there to be no border controls once we have taken back control of our borders. But nor is there any evidence that they regret voting to leave the EU. Writ large, this is significant for those expecting widespread Bregret to put a last minute halt to Brexit. If the consequences of Brexit are either denied or blamed upon the EU, and not attributed to or accepted as resulting from the vote to leave, then no such Bregret can be expected.

If all this is right, then there are only two ways that Bregret could occur. One would be for the narrative to change and for leave voters to link the consequences with their vote. But this is extremely unlikely for basic, psychological reasons - there is a technical term for this which I can’t recall, but it is essentially because people don’t find it easy to admit that they have made a mistake. And that’s likely to be especially so if this is pointed out to them by precisely the disdainful ‘elitists’ and ‘experts’ who proved so ineffective during the campaign.

The second possibility is far more conceivable. It is to redirect the narrative of blame on to the leading figures in the Leave campaign. On to all of those who repeatedly and in various ways claimed that leaving would be easy, and would lead to sunny uplands where cake would be both had and eaten. And on to all those who failed to mention, or denied, the consequences on things as diverse as nuclear medicine and the Irish border. In short, it is far more likely that leave voters will accept the proposition that they were fooled by politicians – as indeed they were – than that they fooled themselves. It is also likely to have far more traction than, for example, repeatedly insisting that the referendum was only advisory, or that only 37% of the electorate voted to leave. The idea that politicians lie is not, after all, an especially outlandish one nor is it an especially complex one. If leave voters – not all of them, but just, say, 20% of them – come to believe that they were lied to about Brexit then Bregret becomes a possibility.

 
Update (19/11/17): Thanks to various people on Twitter for reminding me that the psychological concept that eluded me in the penultimate paragraph was cognitive dissonance. This was, indeed, what I was thinking of. However, Dr Garrett M. Morris has helpfully suggested that a better psychological concept to capture what I was trying to express is one that I was not aware of, namely the backfire effect.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Brexiters are retreating deeper into fantasy land

As the realities of Brexit become ever more apparent, Brexiters are retreating ever further into a fantasy world of their own. To take just a couple of the many examples this week we had, first, Christopher Chope MP who amongst other things railed against the EU for making membership of the single market and customs union a “pre-requisite to having a frictionless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”. This, which is becoming a recurrent complaint from the Brexit Ultras, shows a quite extraordinary degree of ignorance. It seems not to have occurred to Chope that it is the UK which is choosing to leave the single market and customs union and that means, by definition, creating a border. Once you leave a common customs and regulatory regime there have to be border checks – you can’t go an acting as if, somehow, you haven’t left those regimes. To pretend that this consequence arises from EU intransigence rather than UK choice is either to lack knowledge of the most basic of facts or to be deliberately misleading voters.

Then we had an informative report on Radio 4’s The World Tonight about the impact of Brexit on the Dutch economy and especially the port of Rotterdam. It featured various Dutch business people explaining how Brexit would hamper trade and, in particular, what it would mean for building new customs facilities at Rotterdam. One of the interviewees bemoaned the ‘lack of realism’ of the British government in its approach to Brexit. The BBC’s misguided interpretation of ‘balance’ means that any factual story about Brexit, which almost invariably shows it to have damaging effects, has to be accompanied by a Brexiter speculating about how wonderful things will be. So, on cue, Crispin Blunt MP appeared (and was subsequently reported here). His response to the report was that it showed that the EU needed us more than we need them, and that the Dutch business people featured should be lobbying the European Commission to give us a good trade deal.

So here, months and months since the Referendum campaign started, we had yet another version of the idea that German car makers (sometimes French cheese makers, Italian wine makers, even Wallonian vegetable growers but, this time, Dutch dockers) are going to swing a deal for the UK. It seems not to have sunk in that this is not going to happen because both European businesses and European politicians regard preserving the integrity of the single market as far more important than any loss of trade with the UK. In any case, and linked to Chope’s border absurdity, however good a trade deal the UK struck with the EU it is still only going to be a trade deal. Because the UK is choosing to leave the single market and customs union that deal is never going to be the same as membership and so is never, for example, going to obviate the need for new customs procedures at Rotterdam. Failure to understand this runs throughout the Brexiter fantasy land, with John Redwood MP urging the CBI to lobby the EU not to impose any new barriers to trade when we leave – but it is leaving which creates the new barriers to trade. We are imposing them on ourselves, because people like Redwood think that this is a good idea. We can’t leave and yet, somehow, not leave.

All of these examples, and many more that could be given, grow directly out of the false claims made to the British electorate before the Referendum. They re-state in various ways the idea that the UK is ‘bound to get a good deal’ in which we can ‘have our cake and eat it’ (other times it is the endless re-cycling of the ‘we can trade on WTO terms’ myth and, associated, of the discredited Economists for Brexit forecast). For all that has happened since the vote, Brexiter thinking really has not advanced beyond that. In effect, they are still fighting the Referendum and still acting as if they have not won it and are now responsible for the consequences. The only difference is that as these absurd propositions are shown to be false the Brexiters – using their own peculiar anti-logic – take that to be evidence that the EU is ‘punishing’ us and that this ‘proves’ Brexit is the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, this small group of Brexit ultras continues to drive another fantasy world which, unfortunately, turns out to be our sovereign parliament. In search of their approval, the government now hopes to fix Brexit day in statute. Doing so is meaningless both because it is already fixed not by statute but by Article 50, and because the statute could always be overturned by new legislation anyway. It has no conceivable benefit in terms of the negotiations – quite the reverse, since even if it did have meaning its meaning would be to voluntarily reduce the UK’s freedom of action. It serves only as a symbol to garner the cheers of the more bovine of the Brexiters. On the other hand, a symbolic sop was offered to the Tory ‘pragmatists’ in the form of a vote on the final deal. But even as a sop that was stillborn as it emerged that were the deal to be voted down there would be a no deal Brexit. Despite the mantra ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, everyone knows that the truth is that ‘any deal is better than no deal’, so the promised vote is meaningless. As it had to be, since a meaningful vote would offend the Ultras who must at all costs be pandered to, at least unless the ‘pragmatists’ in parliament are willing to face them down.

The tragedy in all this lies in the repeated terms – fantasy, absurdity, meaningless – that characterise what is currently going on. None of it is in any serious way contributing anything whatsoever to Brexit. It is completely detached from the damaging economic realities that are already happening as a result of Brexit, and equally detached from the (virtually stalled) talks in Brussels. Those who hope to remain in the EU or, at least, get to a single market soft Brexit might take a tiny crumb of comfort from this. The longer the nonsense goes on, and the closer we get to the end of the Article 50 period, the greater the possibility of the Brexit Ultras being comprehensively discredited. The people who should be thoroughly alarmed are those who want, or are reconciled to, hard Brexit but want it in an ‘orderly’ form. For them, every day conducted in these fantasy terms brings us closer either to that possible retreat from hard Brexit or, much more likely, to the chaotic catastrophe of no deal Brexit.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Government paralysis risks a Brexit disaster

With each day bringing ever more peculiar political stories it is easy to take for granted the over-arching peculiarity shaping British government, as if it were a normal situation. That is to say, we have a minority government whose central and defining policy is to change fundamentally Britain’s economy and foreign policy in ways which will damage, and are already damaging, both; and this on the basis of the most extreme interpretation of a very narrow referendum result, itself conceivably influenced by a foreign power, an interpretation which is not supported by the majority of MPs, nor by half the cabinet, nor by the majority of the electorate and which the Prime Minister herself probably does not think is in the best interests of the country. I cannot think of a precedent in the history of Britain, or any other country, for such a situation. No matter how familiar these facts are we should never take them to be normal.

It is from this perverse situation that everything else flows, with cabinet ministers quite airily articulating their own version of what form Brexit will take so that (even leaving aside Priti Patel’s freelance adventures in diplomacy) Britain no longer has a functioning foreign policy, as Ian Dunt argued in an excoriating article this week. Meanwhile, having insisted that its 58 sectoral impact assessments, full of “excruciating detail”, must on no account be published since they would reveal the UK’s ‘negotiating hand’, the government now announces that, in fact, they do not exist. Which suggests either that on one of these points they were lying, or that the damage of publishing them would consist of revealing to the EU how little proper planning had been undertaken.

If the latter, it is, alas, likely that the EU are all too well aware of this. Indeed, there are widespread reports of growing frustration and bewilderment within the EU. Despite Britain’s frequent calls for quicker progress, this week’s talks are to be brief and, according the government, no more than a ‘stock taking’ exercise rather than substantive negotiations. A closely argued article by Jonathan Lis this week, based on high level contacts in Brussels, suggested that the EU is now coming to the view that a ‘no deal’ outcome, with all the chaos that entails, in March 2019 is more likely than not. And it is reported that a deadline of three weeks will be set for Britain to agree the terms of a financial settlement if there are to be talks about a transition agreement (itself a highly complex matter, as a new analysis by Professor Kenneth Armstrong discusses).

It hardly needs to be spelt out, but the reason why things are stalled is that the government can do nothing because as soon as it does it will fall apart (there have been rumours of a serious offer on the financial settlement, but nothing has happened yet). For that matter, The Times is today reporting (£) that Brussels are preparing for the British government to fall by the end of the year. I argued in my previous post that this must be a real possibility, underscored by the fact that the cabinet meeting was cancelled this week, apparently because of the depth of the political crisis and divisions engulfing it. If this doesn’t happen, then the paralysis will continue. But paralysis does not mean stasis, because each day that goes by brings March 2019 closer, and brings no deal closer. This, of course, is precisely what the Brexit ultras want and is the reason they continue to support May. The issue thus becomes whether and when the more pragmatic parts of the Tory party (and pragmatic in this context does not mean remainers or even soft Brexiters, it just means not belonging to the kamikaze tendency) are prepared to stand up and say that this ludicrous situation cannot continue, bringing the government down if needs be.

If that does not happen soon the damage will be huge. And yet if it does happen soon the Ultras will inevitably say that all would have been well had the government survived and continued on its kamikaze course. In those circumstances, a new government of whatever stripe might well continue on just such a course. So it may be that it is not until the damage – economic and political – really ramps up that there is any chance of the Ultras being discredited, if not in their own eyes then those of the public. Thus we are on a very perilous tightrope with no certainty, and perhaps only a slender chance, of getting to the other side more or less intact. If the government implodes too soon, the Ultras may still drag us to disaster; if it struggles on as it is for too long the disaster will arrive of its own accord and it will be too late to do anything about it.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Now politics is moving fast - but in what direction?

In my previous post, I argued that economics is moving faster than the politics of Brexit. Further confirmation of that came this week when the car industry urged the government to provide clarity “within months” because investment decisions cannot be postponed much longer. Meanwhile, financial services have been saying the same thing but making the sharper point that from early 2018 the value of agreeing any transition period will “start to erode” as the relocation decisions will have already begun to be made. Although people talk of the danger of a ‘cliff edge’ in March 2019, in a sense there is a mini-cliff edge much earlier than that, perhaps in March 2018.

But we are no longer just in the terrain of making predictions about the effects of Brexit. An NIESR report this week shows that households are already an average £600 a year worse off and that this is “directly attributable” to the Brexit vote. We also now have food rotting unpicked in fields largely because of the difficulties of recruiting EU workers and, similarly, growing problems in nurse recruitment and in other sectors. Also this week the Bank of England identified Brexit as having a damaging effect on the economy leading, in part, to the raising of interest rates.

However no one could deny that politics is now also moving very fast. The trouble is that whereas the economics is going in one direction only it’s not clear where politics is going at all. On the specifics of Brexit there are occasional signs that, belatedly and at snail’s pace, the government are admitting some of the complexities of Brexit, for example with Liam Fox’s recognition that his previous assertion that the UK could just cut and paste EU trade deals after Brexit was incorrect. But for every such small step forward there are contradictory statements on such basic issues as whether no deal means no deal or a “bare bones” no deal (i.e. no trade deal but deals on discrete matters such as air travel); on whether or not there could be a trade deal with the EU completed (£) by March 2019 with an implementation period to follow; on whether and how talks might be speeded up, and on a raft of other things.

Overall, there is very little sign, publicly anyway, of the government taking heed of the detailed technical realities such as those spelt out again this week by Sir Ivan Rogers in his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee. Rogers, it will be recalled, was formerly the UK Ambassador to the EU until he was hounded out of office by the Brexit Ultras back in January. It’s possible that we may get some further clarity on Brexit if (and depending on to what extent) the government’s sectoral impact assessments get released. Forcing this has been perhaps the only effective thing as regards Brexit that Labour have done since the Referendum. It’s conceivable that if they are detailed and alarming then this will change the terms of debate considerably. It is notable that the extremely pro-Brexit Daily Express has this week begun to publish stories reporting, rather than ridiculing as ‘Project Fear’, the likely adverse consequences of Brexit. As the bad news piles up there’s just a sense that things are shifting, but not fast enough to make a difference yet.

Of course the big political story of the week concerns sexual harassment and the unfolding events around this seem likely to further destabilise an already highly precarious minority government. It is more than conceivable that we are not very far away from the government falling, both as a result of scandal but also because, in any case, it just isn’t going to be possible to keep fudging all of the detailed issues around Brexit. Once the fudge ceases, the Tory party will almost certainly implode and/or the support of the DUP that enables the Tories to govern will collapse.

If that happens, it will open up highly unpredictable possibilities which could give an opportunity for a government to do what should have been done by Theresa May right from the start. Namely, to provide some proper political leadership not just of Westminster but of the country as a whole. Such leadership would acknowledge and respect the divisions within the country, acknowledge the full complexities of Brexit, acknowledge the unavoidable trade-offs and constraints, and acknowledge in particular the yawning gap between what leave voters were promised and what is actually deliverable. Parroting about ‘the will of the people’ is no longer, if indeed it ever was, good enough. In short, there needs to be a comprehensive rejection of the politics of “easy answers” which was superbly dissected by David Allen Green in the FT this week.

It is almost certainly too late for May to provide this kind of leadership now. Even for a new government with a new Prime Minister it would need political skill of an extraordinary kind. Nor could it just be a matter of the Prime Minister: what is needed is leadership from across the political class but also a kind of multi-lateral rhetorical disarmament from all of those, on both sides and at all levels, who are passionately engaged in all this. That includes, on the one side, dropping all of the relentless nastiness about saboteurs, traitors and enemies of the people; and, on the other side, dropping the endless derogatory insults about thick, racist Brexshitters. In particular, it means almost all of us accepting that we won’t get everything we want, whatever the government does (including following its present course).

In such a climate we might then be able to seek some form of extension to the Article 50 period and to pursue what is probably the only politically and economically viable solution to the current mess which is single market membership via EEA/EFTA, and membership of the various other agencies such as Euratom which are precluded by the ECJ redline. The entire UK approach deriving from the Lancaster House speech would therefore have to be abandoned – not because it is going to fail but because it already has failed. We already know for certain that what was set out then and in the White Paper cannot be achieved within the time available, and almost certainly that it cannot be achieved within any time frame.

So another approach is needed. This would not, to say the least, be easy, either domestically or diplomatically. But nor is the present approach. Indeed, there is no easy course of action available. But if we don’t get to a situation something like I’ve just described within a very few months then it will be too late to avoid catastrophe. A side-effect of the current scandals afflicting the government might – just – be to take politics quickly enough to the point where it is possible.



Update (5/11/17): Consistent with the argument in this post, the President of the CBI is today reported as suggesting that a transition deal needs to be agreed by March 2018, and that the government should drop its existing ‘red lines’ over the form that a deal should take.